The 15 biggest Aussie alternative albums of the ’90s
Okay, so here are the rules:
No double-ups: It’s Hourly Daily or Hi Fi Way. Or #4 Record. But not all three.
The band/artist needs to have enjoyed heavy triple j play with this album, and toured Australia fairly consistently.
The band/artist needs to have blown up in the ’90s; so no Paul Kelly gems (even though the ’90s was secretly his best decade).
The album needs to be the type that would have/did get the band onto Recovery. No ‘Impossible Princess’ although we do agree this album rules, and could/should arguably land on a list such as this.
New Zealand is not Australia, despite what Russell Crowe will tell you. Sorry, Fur.
Much like how triple j stopped playing Evermore when they crossed over to commercial radio play, ‘Pink Pills’ by The Mavis’s is disqualified due to its heavy rotation in the Summer Bay Diner jukebox.
This list is in no particular order.
Winners don’t do drugs.
Skateboarding is not a crime.
Okay, let’s go.
Superjesus – Sumo
This album smashed onto the ARIA chart at #2 in early 1998, following a successful EP (Eight Step Rail), much national touring, and a string of triple j-adored singles. Listening back to Sarah McLeod’s debut effort, it is shocking to realise just how heavy the riffs on this album are, and how forward in the mix the guitars sit. Grinding as the guitars are, though, it was McLoed’s deft touch with a pop melody that saw the band quickly become one of the most popular mainstream acts of the ’90s. The moment where the crunching riffage gives way to the beautiful chorus melody on opening ‘Down Again’ is like a fever finally breaking, and Sumo doesn’t falter at all from this high point.
The Living End – The Living End
The Living End were so thoroughly not of their time — combining Stray Cats-inspired rockabilly with an early punk sound abandoned by The Clash some decades earlier — that on paper their success with the youth makes little sense. Of course such tired analysis washes away the minute you first see this band play live; their debut album captures this blistering sound as best it can, and the result is something both youthful and energetic – and steeped in rock and roll history. Dads loved it, daughters loved it, everybody bought it. The secret was simple: The Living End could outplay any band, with a freight train sound built both from studying musical theory from the greats, and Gladwell-level hours spent in sweaty pubs and RSLs alike, playing hours of covers and refining their live show. This debut album is like a greatest hits collection; it’s no surprise within a year of release it had sold a quarter of a million CDs in Australia.
Silverchair – Frogstomp
“Nirvana in Pyjamas” is how this impossibly youthful band were derided upon their debut. In truth, aside from Daniel Johns’ shock of dirty blonde locks, the band owed very little debt to Nirvana, landing somewhere between the earnest grunge of Pearl Jam and the circular riffs of Helmet – aka the band tee Daniel wore in those early press shots. Frogstomp is a triumph of style and songcraft, with a 14-year-old Johns penning most of these bleak odes based on documentaries he watched on SBS – the station who would help propel the band towards their early success. After this album, Johns matured (as you do in your teen years) and made stylistically leaps as sharp and sudden as Brian Wilson; by the end of the decade their technicoloured string-laden symphonies bore little resemblance to the songs on this album. Johns’ songwriting would get far more clever, sure, but put on ‘Israel’s Son’ right now and tell me you can’t still feel that thing.
Jebediah – Slightly Odway
Kevin Mitchell’s flat nasally drawl will either endear you to this album or repel you. That’s something you cannot control. If you are the type to like his voice, then there is very little you won’t find infectious about the Perth band’s charming debut album. Sounding like the energetic-yet-stoned teenagers they were, Slightly Odway spawned five massive singles, and should have spawned five more, such is the depth of songwriting and over-abundance of sugar-fuelled hooks on the record. For every silly throwaway line, there are two sincere ones about young love, nowhere better displayed then on the tender, timeless ‘Harpoon’. “Why does it hurt?” cries Mitchell at the song’s apex, and we still don’t quite have an answer for him. It just does.
The Whitlams – Eternal Nightcap
The Whitlams were scrapping by as a band when Eternal Nightcap changed everything. The early Whitlams were very much a gang, but as founding guitarist Stevie Plunder took his life shortly before the release of this album, soon to be followed by founding bassist Andy Lewis in 2000, the band became Tim Freedman’s vehicle. Eternal Nightcap remains Freedman’s marquee work, a tender, sometimes-silly collection of songs entrenched deep within the Inner West, despite the popular single ‘Melbourne’ suggesting Freedman has a wandering eye when it comes to geography. ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett’ is a ramshackled singalong about drinking and masturbation, ‘No Aphrodisiac’ is a slow-burning masterstroke — also about drinking and masturbation; and the most unlikely Hottest 100 #1 of all time, too — but it’s the trilogy of Charlie songs that really make this album a classic. A cautionary tale, a love letter, and the perfect cure to loneliness.
Regurgitator – Unit
Both futuristic and nostalgic at the same time, Regurgitator kicked against the lo-fi hip hop and sharp punk of their debut album with this collection of pop tunes adorned with radio-ready choruses and cheesy keyboards left gathering dust since the early ’80s. Of course, that Unit‘s biggest hit single was about a blow-up-doll lover made perfect perverse sense, as did the fact that the nicest song contained a chorus with the line, “dicks and cunts and sluts and butts“. ‘Song Formerly Known As’ is a party-ready Prince parody, while album closer ‘Just A Beautiful Story’ is an otherworldly epic about the finite beauty of life through an atheist’s lens. The most singularly-odd success story of the era.
Ben Lee- Breathing Tornadoes
In 1998, high off his latest artistic achievement, Ben Lee declared this to be the greatest Australian album of all time. Bernard Fanning shared a different opinion, calling the singer/songwriter a “precocious little cunt.” The truth lies somewhere in between: Breathing Tornadoes is a deeply accomplished work of art from a songwriter who had just left his teens as the record came out, yet was emerging from an already fruitful musical career, leaning into the type of widescreen pop albums he’d eventually become known for. Breathing Tornadoes is an atmospheric, dense record, yet the chiming ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ remains one of his most upbeat singles, despite the depressed, angry lyrics (which are definitely about Claire Danes, btw).
Spiderbait – Ivy and the Big Apples
By the time Spiderbait started recording their third album in the mid’90s, they were one of the best live bands in the country – a three-pronged attack of fuzz guitar, pounding drums, and driving punk bass – all sprinkled with twin boy/girl vocals. Ivy and the Big Apples was where all the sweetness and darkness came together perfectly, resulting in a top ten record, an ARIA for Best Alternative Album, and the first Aussie #1 on the Triple J Hottest 100 – with the 104-second blast of ‘Buy Me A Pony’. It’s an instant punk classic from go to woe, but it was the band’s other big single from Ivy that saw them break America, as the beautiful breath of fresh air that is ‘Calypso’ crashed into the Hollywood blockbuster ’10 Things I Hate About You’.
Powderfinger – Internationalist
While it was Powderfinger’s 2000 follow up Odyssey Number Five that was their undoubted high-water mark, it was with Internationalist that they stopped writing grunge-lite singles that crossed over into the mainstream, and started writing classic rock singles that demanded to be played across the board in their own right. There was a lighter touch on this album too, with the silly ‘Good Day Ray’ and ‘Celebrity Head’ countering the weighty, political ‘The Day You Come’ and the overly-serious ‘Capoicity’. ‘Already Gone’ is a bona fide masterpiece, and ‘Lemon Sunrise’ is one of nicest ending songs of the era; a palette-cleanser, a relaxing tropical drink at dusk.
Grinspoon – Guide To Better Living
This is by far the most diverse record on this list, which is saying a lot. This schizophrenic quality may be due to the fact that a teenage Phil Jamieson could barely control his musical influences or instincts during this extremely prolific period for the band. Consider how different the perky bounce of ‘Just Ace’, is to the mumbling Britpop of ‘Don’t Go Away’, the grinding metal of ‘Sickfest’, or the stadium rock of ‘Champion’. It didn’t bother fans nor triple j programmers, who made those four singles into huge successes, and saw this album quickly sell over a quarter of a million copies. Interestingly, Guide To Better Living was originally intended to be a double album, and still sounds like one, in both length and scope.
You Am I – Hourly Daily
Sorry, Hi Fi Way fans. For a certain portion of Aussie rock fans, Hi Fi Way will always be the best You Am I album, the best Australian album for many, but I would argue this is simply because it came out first. Hourly Daily is conceptually stronger, contains a wider, better collection of songs, and by this point Rogers had sharpened his craft to an alarming degree. While most tunes on Hi Fi Way devolve into Who-style riffage and drum fill(age?) towards the back half, Hourly Daily songs are crafted like Bee Gees classics, with nary a stray moment included. The production still sparkles today, the songs still sound like the city, and Rogers still meant it; this was the band at their very peak.
Frenzal Rhomb – Meet The Family
How do you deny the power of a pop punk album with songs titled: ‘U.S.Anus’, ‘The Ballad Of Tim Webster’ and ‘Guns Don’t Kill Ducklings, Ducklings Kill Ducklings’? Short answer: You can’t. ‘There’s Your Dad’ contains the most honest recounting of why your own dad is so lame, and everyone else’s is so cool, while ‘Be Still My Beating Off’ kinda speaks for itself. Frenzal Rhomb were a touring powerhouse by the time this album — their third in three years — came out, and they quickly flooded triple j with catchy short blasts of goodness, selling over 100,000 albums within a year.
Something For Kate – Beautiful Sharks
Just before Paul Dempsey’s songwriting became too entrenched in classicism on Echolalia, and just after he’d shaken the math rock of SFK’s debut Elsewhere For Eight Minutes, he struck the perfect balance between both poles on the electrifying Beautiful Sharks. Dempsey’s earnest delivery and raging guitars helped to push three singles to the radio, but it was the gospel of their live performances that saw this album gain such a fervent following. Dempsey was a mighty prolific songwriter at this time — see the double disc of B-sides from this era they later released for proof positive of this — but only the best tunes made the cut here.
Magic Dirt – Friends In Danger
Building from the underground buzz of their uncompromising 1994 EP Life Was Better, Magic Dirt’s debut album declared they weren’t here to fuck around, and you’d better just get used to that ringing sound in your ears. ‘Bodysnatcher’ and ‘Shovel’ are the two obvious highlights to my ringing ears, and the intense ‘Dylan’s Lullaby’ operates as anything but a song to sleep easy to. This album is still the best representation of the band’s ear for melody pushing nicely against their love of noise. They would sound dirgier (on follow up Young and Full Of The Devil) and more cohesive (On 2000’s What Are Rock Stars Doing Today?) but they would never sound better.
Ratcat – Blind Love
This is the band that Richard Kingsmill credits for alternative music breaking in Australia during the ’90s, not those other Nirvana blokes. This album houses the first independent single to hit #1 in Australia, and also marked the first time in chart history that an Australian act simultaneously had the 1# album and #1 single. Pretty good for a fuzzy punk three-piece that basically sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain 33s being played at 45RPM. Blind Love is big fuzzy pop hit after big fuzzy pop hit: ‘Don’t Go Now’ and That Ain’t Bad’ were both #1 mainstream successes, while ‘Baby Baby’ should have been – featuring Margaret Ulrich on backing vocals, too. Simon Day looked like a movie star, they wrote hooky pop songs about love and space, and the artwork looked like the best comic never to have existed. What could have gone wrong?
The article was originally published on Tone Deaf